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Reports of Sewage Overflows on the Rise

Dec 18, 2017

By Amy Neff Roth | Observer-Dispatch



More sewage overflows were reported across the state last year.

But that’s good news, according to Environmental Advocates of New York.

The 153 percent increase in reports between 2015 and 2016 doesn’t mean more sewage is spilling into New York’s waterways; it means more overflows are being reported to the state, said Liz Moran, water and natural resources director for the nonprofit.

And getting those reports is important for protecting public health and for improving infrastructure, she said.

“We think accurate reporting is really important for the public because they have the right to know when a sewage overflow is happening and the extent of the pollution,” she said.

That way individuals and municipalities have the information they need to advocate for infrastructure repair and for grants to help with those repairs, Moran said.

And it tells residents what areas to avoid.

“If you expose yourself to a water body that’s been inundated with sewage recently, you could open yourself up to a lot of nasty parasites and other diseases that you’re just not going to want to have,” Moran said.

About the Oneida County Water Pollution Control Plant

-Location: Leland Avenue, Utica

-Age: 60 years

-Cost of improvements underway: $265 million

-Purpose of improvements:

* Reduce sewage overflows into the Mohawk River
* Meet consent order requirements from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation
* Help Utica with its long-term control plan

-Financing: Grants from New York State Energy Research & Development Authority and New York Empire State Development, and low-interest financing and principal forgiveness from the New York State Environmental Facilities Corporation

Oneida County is in the unusual position of being able to file extremely accurate reports because its Sauquoit Creek pumping station has a meter to measure overflows, said Steven Devan, commissioner of the Oneida County Department of Water Quality and Water Pollution Control.

Devan said reporting overflows is a good idea — his only quibble is in some of the details.

“I think the regulations could be changed a little bit,” he said. “If it happens at 2 o’clock in the morning, you get a two-hour window to report.”

Environmental Advocates released a report last year on sewage overflows in the state based on data reported under the Sewage Pollution Right to Know Act of 2012. But the report pointed out that many overflows apparently weren’t being reported and that many that were reported didn’t include volume estimates.

The nonprofit came out with an addendum this year showing that the number of reports went up sharply, probably because the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation finalized regulations under the Right to Know Act, Moran said. And the DEC listened to community input, revising proposed regulations to ensure that all sewage overflows, including those that combine sewage and stormwater, are reported, she said.

But about one-third of reports still don’t include volume, she said.

At the Sauquoit Creek pumping station, overflows into the Mohawk River happen when stormwater gets put into the sanitary sewer system, Devan said. So the sewage entering the river is highly diluted, he said.

“If we get very excessive rain at the Sauquoit Creek pumping station, then what happens is the pumping station reaches capacity,” he said. “If it’s a dry year, that never happens; but if it’s a wet year, it may happen during the wet season maybe once or twice a month.”

Between May 2013 and November of this year, the county has reported 85 overflows, Moran said.

But the department is working on improvements that should prevent future overflows. It’s improving sewer systems that lead to the pumping station, constructing a new force main between the pump station and the wastewater treatment plant, and upgrading the plant to increase capacity from 55 million gallons a day to 111 millions gallons, a project that should be completed in 2021, Devan said.

The plant only will be able to fully treat 65 million gallons of sewage a day. But about half of the city of Utica’s sewers carry stormwater and raw sewage, he said. Those lines don’t go through the Sauquoit Creek pumping station, but they do sometimes overflow in heavy rains or snow melt, he said. So the plant will be able to treat another 46 million gallons of combined sewage and stormwater, which simply can be disinfected and released, Devan said.

That should prevent 85 percent of Utica’s overflows, he said.

Utica only has reported 31 overflows since 2013 and the reports tend to have the same volume listed, including some listing the slow overflow rate of one gallon per minute, Moran said. That suggests that the city might not have reported all overflows and might not have been exact in its volume reporting, Moran said.

City officials did not immediately return calls.

 

Contact reporter Amy Neff Roth at 315-792-5166 or follow her on Twitter (@OD_Roth).

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